I was recently interviewed on the Ordinary Folk podcast. We talked about theology, politics, the relationship between church and state, and superheroes. Click the image or link below to listen:
There is a strong tendency in man to think of personhood as emerging from non-personality. For pagans and atheists, for example, matter is primary. For many monotheists, God is thought of as too transcendent to really be personal. Even Aristotle, who provided us with an example of what highly trained reason can discern about God apart from revelation, fell very short when he postulated an unmoved mover whose existence precedes all actions but who can be acted upon by none. Such a god may think, but He is not relational. He is personal in only the most anemic sense imaginable. Western Christianity has unfortunately been so influenced by Aristotle that our view of God is at times not much better. We have tended to think of God as apathetic and passionless. As Roger Olson has suggested, this cuts right through to our christology, so that we have often been de facto Nestorians.1
Contrast this with the biblical view of God, however, and you will find a Being who exists beyond everything else (“everything else” being equivalent to the category of things which He created) and yet who condescends to interact with His creation and is personally invested in it.
We see this dichotomy throughout scripture, but perhaps most strongly in the first chapters of Genesis. Genesis 1 gives an account of a nameless God who uses His great power to create the heavens, the earth, and everything that is in them. The primary quality emphasized here is of His transcendence. This God is the one who alone made the heavens and the earth (Nehemiah 9:6) and because of this lives forever, unlike the pagan gods who did not create them and will therefore perish from them (Jeremiah 10:11).
And yet, when we turn to Genesis chapter 2, we find a God who doesn’t just create and dictate, but one who “forms” man by “breath[ing] into his nostrils,” suggesting closeness. This God is given a name to emphasize His personal, intimate interaction with the ones He made in His image. Genesis 2 answers the question of how anything can be known of the God we read about in chapter 1, who is far too transcendent to be understood from human experience and reason alone. To bridge this gap, self-disclosure and condescension is required. God is not simply reasoned to from creation, but must reveal Himself.
The Old Testament, therefore, is about a God who is above creation but who makes Himself known. This God is intensely personal and this quality is demonstrated throughout the Old Testament, not least of all in those places where He talks about His passionate feelings toward His covenant people. For instance, the Hebrew scriptures tell us that God has compassion on Jacob (Isaiah 14:1) and is deeply troubled over humanity’s sin to the point of feeling regret for creating them (Genesis 6:6). Ezekiel chapter 16 provides an account of God’s love for His covenant people in the most emotionally moving language imaginable: God looked upon the lowly and abandoned Israel with compassion and love and felt great affection for her. He married her (representing the covenant He made with her), but she committed adultery. And if that weren’t enough, she sacrificed the children He gave her to foreign gods. One cannot read this chapter without feeling the tenderest empathy for the sadness that God must feel in this scenario.
The transcendent God of the Bible, therefore, is not the transcendent God of Aristotle. He is intimately involved in His creation and draws His people to Him in covenant love. Per Moltmann:
“If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of love… But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings him; and yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer. God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. To this extent he is `apathetic’. But he suffers from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being. In so far he is `pathetic’.”2
If the God of the Hebrews is so different from the god of Aristotle, how much more is He different from the gods of the pagans!3 The primary concept undergirding paganism is that of continuity; everything that exists is of the same kind and is related to everything else. Polytheistic gods are not comparable to the God of the Bible for the same reason human beings aren’t—they are not transcendent over creation but are merely a part of it. For the same reason, personhood is not a quality that defines the gods in the way that westerners, benefiting from 2,000 years of Christian tradition, think about personhood. For the pagan, a person (in Latin “persona”) is merely a mask that a bit of existence wears which appears to distinguish him/her from everything else but is only superficial.4
This leads us to a question, framed by John Oswalt, which must be given a plausible answer:
“The unique combination of transcendent personhood that now provides the sole foundation of biblical thought never emerged anywhere else in the mind of a scribe or a philosopher. Why did it emerge in a thoroughly pagan Israel?”5
Why indeed, to quote Brueggemann, in the Old Testament narrative is YHWH described as “underived and capable of direct intrusion into the narrative life of Israel without preparation or antecedent”?6 The answer which the Old Testament itself gives is the most plausible:
Because God revealed Himself to Israel.
1 Notes Olson, “For Luther it is no scandal to say ‘God was born’ and ‘God suffered and died’ and ‘God was crucified’ and really mean it as more than mere figures of speech. Luther carried the communicatio idiomatum to its logical conclusion—something apparently neither Leo nor Cyril nor their orthodox and catholic interpreters did. They were still prisoners of the old Greek notion of the divine impassibility. This kept them from fully fleshing out the great mystery of the incarnation and caused the Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ to be interpreted more and more in a Nestorian sense after the council adjourned” (Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle edition).
2 Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle edition.
3 Note how Kaufmann distinguishes the biblical theology from nearly every other: “The mark of monotheism is not the concept of a god who is creator, eternal, benign, or even all-powerful; these notions are found everywhere in the pagan world. It is, rather, the idea of a god who is the source of all being, not subject to a cosmic order, and not emergent from a pre-existent realm; a god free of the limitations of magic and mythology. The high gods of primitive tribes do not embody this idea” (Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, New York: Schocken Books, 1960).
4 See John D. Zizioulas’ discussion of the development of personhood as an ontological category in his book Being As Communion.
5 John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, Kindle edition.
6 Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, Kindle edition.
One of the perennial difficulties in Christian theology is the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Perhaps the strongest proponent for discontinuity between the Testaments, Marcion the second century Gnostic, famously rejected the Old Testament revelation as canon and removed Old Testament references from the New Testament writings to create a fiercely anti-Hebrew canon. This would have been difficult work indeed, since G.K. Beale, referencing a personal study by Roger Nicole, noted, “295 separate quotations of the OT in the NT (including quotations with and without formulas). These make up about 4.5 percent of the entire NT, about 352 verses. Thus 1 out of 22.5 verses in the NT incorporates a quotation.”1 It is no surprise then that C.H. Dodd claimed that the Old Testament formed the essential substructure of the New.2 If the New Testament authors were so eager to quote the Old Testament, this raises the question of how they viewed it and used it in their writings. Did they seek to argue that the revelation of Jesus Christ was in major continuity or discontinuity with the Old Testament? Were their citations of the Old Testament to support New Testament ideas exegetically warranted, or were their concepts being read into writings which were fundamentally against the message they were seeking to disseminate? In this essay, I hope to show that the key to understanding how these two bodies of writing relate can be discerned by how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament.
To begin with, there are numerous Old Testament passages referenced in the New Testament as direct prophecies of Christ. For instance, Acts 8:32-33 quotes Isaiah 53:7-8 and claims that Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy was really of Jesus. More interesting for our purposes are those passages which seem to claim that Christ is recapitulating Old Testament figures. Paul, for instance, claims that Jesus fully reversed the curse that Adam brought upon humanity (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). Jesus is also, at numerous times and by numerous authors, compared to David and related to Old Testament texts about David with the indication that he has fulfilled the Davidic covenant (Mark 11:10, Luke 1:32, John 7:42, Acts 2:30-36, Acts 13:45, Acts 15:16, Romans 1:1-4, Revelation 3:7). These examples show that the apostolic writings didn’t always simply exegete what the Old Testament said, but that they saw the Hebrew scriptures as prefiguring Christ even when Christ wouldn’t necessarily have been seen as having been in view by the pre-Christ reader.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this hermeneutic is Matthew 2:15. Matthew claims that Hosea 11:1, wherein God reminds Israel that He called them out of Egypt, was fulfilled when Christ was called out of Egypt. Regarding the plain sense of Hosea will by no means lead a reader to see any future fulfillment of Hosea’s passage—it was after all a reference to a past event. However, Jesus, the unique Son of God and the perfect representative of Israel, could be compared by Matthew to Israel to emphasize the typological fulfillment of Israel in its head, the King Messiah. Notes Jonathan Lunde:
“Consequently, ‘what is said of one figure can then be applied to another who fits within the identity of the group or who serves as its representative.’ This assumption allows NT writers to craft arguments that pivot on relationships between Jesus and the nation or its corporate representatives. It also reverberates under the surface of the titles that are applied to Jesus, such as the Son of God, the Servant, and the Son of Man. Snodgrass notes: [These] were all representative titles that were applied to Israel first. Jesus took on these titles because he had taken Israel’s task. He was representative of Israel and in solidarity with her. God’s purposes for Israel were now taken up in his ministry. If this were true, what had been used to describe Israel could legitimately be used of him.”3
Matthew was not unique in seeing Messiah as the perfect Israelite and as Israel’s representative. Isaiah’s Servant Songs (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52:13-53:12) seem to go back and forth between describing Israel and describing their unique Messianic representative who brings peace and healing to the nations where they have failed to do so. These songs culminate in Isaiah 53, where the Servant Messiah is said to be crushed for the iniquities of Israel despite their having gone astray. Clearly God has two “servants” in mind, or else one could not redeem the other:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, NIV).
This New Testament view of recapitulation finds fulfillment not only of persons and nations, but even if holy objects. The temple of God in the Old Covenant was the place in which deity resided, where He dwelt among His people, and where propitiatory sacrifices were offered to atone for the sins of the people of God. And yet John tells us that Jesus, speaking of His own body, said to the Jewish leaders, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19, ESV).
What we see in these typological fulfillments is both continuity and discontinuity. There is continuity in that the entirety of the Old Testament looked forward to its fulfillment in Christ, and yet the fact that there is fulfillment suggests something new and different which was in some senses unlike what had come before. Though Christ’s sacrifice made the temple and the priests obsolete, for instance, He also affirmed their underlying meaning. The acceptance of such a continuity only requires the acceptance of one presupposition: that, as G.K. Beale wrote, “history is unified by a wise and sovereign plan so that the earlier parts are designed to correspond and point to the later parts.”4 Therefore, there is no more significant discontinuity in the temple sacrifices pointing forward to Christ then there was in God’s giving animal skins to Adam to point forward to the temple sacrifices.
Focusing on recapitulation provides us with a broad overview of the Old and New Testament continuity/discontinuity, but how does it look when dealing with specific biblical issues? At this point, we will turn to two such difficulties in particular.
One particularly thorny problem for resolving continuity/discontinuity between the Testaments is the relationship between law and grace. Since the Old Testament is founded on the revelation of God’s Torah to the wandering Israelites, and since the apostle Paul seems to denigrate the law as being counter to grace, a surface reading of scripture might cause one to presume a large degree of discontinuity on this issue.
Paul tells the Galatian church, of which many members had been keeping strict observance of the Torah, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13, ESV) and “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, ESV). But is Paul saying that Christians should reject the idea of moral duties and ignore the Old Testament witness of God’s holiness as an example for us? May it never be! Paul himself quite explicitly explains the issue he was addressing: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4, ESV). The problem was not that these Christians revered the Torah—it was that they thought strict observance of it could save them.
Moreover, Paul did not think of the Old Testament saints as having been saved by law in contrast to the church which is saved by grace. Paul speaks of two Old Testament figures in particular and concludes, “‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness…’ just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin'” (Romans 4:3-8, ESV). Indeed, Paul claims the Old Testament was written “for our instruction” (Romans 15:4, ESV) and that we ought to “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31, ESV).
According to Paul, the Old Testament people of God were not saved by keeping the law, but in fact, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV). Salvation by grace is not new, but is testified to in the Old Testament writings: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (Romans 3:21, ESV).
Finally, Paul makes it quite clear that the Old Testament saints were not justified by their good works, but the blood of Christ covered them:
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:23-26, ESV).
There is therefore not fundamental discontinuity between the Testaments on this point. However, this directs us to our second difficulty. If the Torah still has value for Christians, what of its civil laws? Are Christians obligated to establish a neo-Mosaic state (theonomy) with the same legal requirements that God expected from the Israelites?
To begin with, Jesus Himself claimed that there was a distinction between church and state when He was tested by the Pharisees on whether religious Jews should pay taxes to a pagan state. His famous answer: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, ESV).
This distinction was also supported by Paul, who told Christians, “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19, ESV), but said of the pagan state, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, ESV). It is of note that Paul was speaking of a pagan state which would shortly be in the business of oppressing Christians. Paul was not claiming that the government always acts in accordance with God’s moral values, but that God is sovereign enough to ensure that His will be done even by pagan dictators. This is the same point made by Old Testament prophets such as Habakkuk and Jeremiah who spoke of pagan Babylon’s coming subjugation of Judah.
But what makes this church/state distinction characteristic of the New Covenant when it wasn’t characteristic of the Israelite state? One might make an analogy to Jeremiah’s contrast (in Jeremiah 31:31-34) of the Old Covenant laws written on stone (emphasizing that covenant’s physicality and spatiality) to the New Covenant laws written on the hearts of God’s elect (emphasizing this covenant’s spiritual nature). Jesus, when asked by Pilate why His followers wouldn’t fight to release Him since He is a king, responded, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36, ESV). This is not to say that there is no future kingdom of God which is political in nature, only that it is not now that kind of kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15:24).
However, even with these important distinctions which argue for discontinuity between the Testaments, one might argue that these is in fact more continuity on the issue of civil laws than not. For one thing, even the civil laws of the Torah are supported by eternal moral values, and both are written for our edification. The penalties might change (as God Himself made exceptions for the death penalty in the cases of David, Moses, Paul, etc., suggesting the mutability of the civil laws’ legal requirements), but the values supporting these laws remains. More than that, however, the Old Testament itself suggests that the elect are held to a higher standard than the non-elect. For example, in Amos we find God judging the pagan nations based on broad moral categories that are accessible to all men while He judges Judah specifically for its covenant unfaithfulness. Dennis Kinlaw concludes of Amos’ words of judgment, “we might say that Yahweh judges the other nations by natural law.”5 If God requires something different from the elect than the non-elect, and since the elect in the New Covenant are an ecclesial and not a political grouping it would not be appropriate to establish a theonomic state. In other words, while God’s moral law (which is expressed in Israel’s civil laws) is eternal and therefore retains continuity with the New Testament, Jesus’ coming changes the way these laws are to be expressed by God’s covenant people.
Recall how C.H. Dodd characterized the Old Testament—as the substructure of the New. The earliest Christians had no New Testament, so the Old Testament was their Bible. That this valuation of the Old Testament remains for Christians today is established by the fact that the apostolic writings utilized the Old Testament as the fertile ground of New Testament revelation. The key to the Old Testament’s use is to read it as the apostles did—christocentrically. Which is to say as the revelation of God and the ground for all of God’s promises which are fulfilled in Christ.
1Beale, G.K. Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Kindle Edition.
2Note the subtitle of C.H. Dodd’s According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology.
3Berding and Lunde editors, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Kindle Edition.
4Beale, G.K. Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Kindle Edition.
5John N. Oswalt and Dennis F. Kinlaw, Lectures in Old Testament Theology, Kindle Edition.
Last year, I had the opportunity of interviewing an older Jehovah’s Witness couple regarding some of the central JW teachings. They were both quite knowledgeable and the husband had even worked for the headquarters in Brooklyn at one time. They were also very friendly, as is evidenced by their willingness to dialogue with me.
I included the recordings below in hopes that they might be instructive for those who are curious about what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe and the arguments they are likely to use in dialogue with Christians. I, for one, found it to be a fascinating conversation that reiterated to me why the teachings of Christianity, in contrast to the Jehovah’s Witness religion, are so important and precious. Click the links to view in your browser, or right-click to save them to your drive.
The Jehovah’s Witness religion is a cult of Christianity (meaning it appears to be Christian but contradicts central Christian teachings) whose leaders, The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, work out of Brooklyn, New York. They have numerous aberrant views, but it would probably be more helpful to focus on one for the purposes of this paper so that it can be more fully developed and refuted. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was created by God (whom they call Jehovah) before everything else. Before the Son became a man, he existed as the Archangel Michael. He is not God Almighty, but is called in the Jehovah’s Witness Bible translation, the New World Translation, “a god” (John 1:1, NWT) and sometimes referred to in Jehovah’s Witness parlance as “a mighty god, but not God Almighty.” It might be helpful to look at the biblical verses that bear directly on this issue and see how JWs understand them in order to respond to their charges directly.
Perhaps the most direct passage in scripture that testifies to Jesus’ divinity is John chapter 1. It begins, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. ” (John 1:1-3, ESV). John is here paraphrasing Genesis 1, which tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. John is therefore asserting quite clearly that the one who created all things in the beginning (referred to in Genesis 1) was “the Word,” a name which John (borrowing perhaps from the Greek concept of the logos or the Aramaic concept of the memra) applies to Jesus. John doesn’t simply make this identification implicit, however. He states quite explicitly that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses bring up an interesting point on the Greek behind this sentence that helps us to illuminate John’s view of God. They note that, unlike in the clause that reads “the Word was with God,” where “God” has a definite article before it, “the Word was God” lacks the definite article before “God.” Their conclusion is thus that this clause should be translated, “the Word was A god.” There is a much better explanation for the lack of the article here, however. Daniel Wallace, an eminent textual critic and Greek scholar explains:
“Its lack of a definite article keeps us from identifying the person of the Word (Jesus Christ) with the person of ‘God’ (the Father). That is to say, the word order tells us that Jesus Christ has all the divine attributes that the Father has; lack of the article tells us that Jesus Christ is not the Father. John’s wording here is beautifully compact! It is, in fact, one of the most elegantly terse theological statements one could ever find” (http://www.puritanboard.com/f17/exegetical-insight-john-1-1c-daniel-wallace-72459/).
In other words, the lack of the article often suggests that what is being referred to is a quality, not a personal identification. John beautifully illustrates the orthodox view of the Trinity here. Jesus is not a creation of God, nor is He the same person as the Father. He is, instead, distinct from the Father but also sharing in His divine nature. Or, as some have translated it, “what God was, the Word was.” John makes this even more emphatic by reversing the word order, so that it literally reads, “and God was the Word.” Furthermore, the missing article before “God” cannot mean, as a rule, that the God being spoke of is simply “a god,” or else the NWT’s translation of John 1:18 should read, “no one has seen a god.” In fact, according to Robert Countess, there are 282 instances of theos (God) without the article in New Testament:
“At sixteen places NWT has [similar to its translation of John 1:1] either a god, god, gods, or godly. Sixteen out of 282 means that the translators were faithful to their translation principle only six percent of the time” (cited in Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 267).
In an issue of Watchtower magazine, a publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, entitled “The Man Who Changed the World” (April 1, 2010), we read of Jesus, “He lived before he was born on earth. Jesus once said: ‘before Abraham came into existence, I have been…'”
This is a reference to John 8:58, and follows the reading in their New World Translation. The NASB, a fairly literal translation, reads this way:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM [in Greek, ‘ego eimi’].'”
This wording matches the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint or LXX) in Isaiah 43:10-11. (Jesus and the apostles were very familiar with the Septuagint and it is quoted numerous times throughout the New Testament):
“…understand that I am he [ego eimi– I AM]: before me there was no other God, and after me there shall be none” (Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton, English Translation of the Greek Septuagint).
Many have also compared this verse to Exodus 3:14, where God refers to Himself as “I AM.” Whichever verse was in the mind of the Jews listening to Jesus (Isaiah 43:10 or Exodus 3:14), they understood His meaning. In the next verse, we learn that they picked up rocks to stone Him for blasphemy because of what He had just said. It is absolutely critical that we understand what Jesus means by these words. He Himself tells us that it is:
“And He was saying to them, ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He [better translated “I AM,” Greek: “ego eimi”], you will die in your sins” (John 8:23-24, NASB). If we do not take the time to pay clear attention to what Jesus is saying here, Jesus claims that we are still in our sins (see also John 13:19 and 18:6 for references where Jesus’ invokes I AM of Himself to attest to His divinity).
For more information regarding the use of “ego eimi,” please check out this article on the subject by Dr. James White: http://vintage.aomin.org/EGO.html
In this same publication, “The Man Who Changed the World,” we read:
“Jehovah has many angelic sons. Jesus, however, is unique. He referred to himself as ‘the only-begotten Son of God.’ That expression means that Jesus is the sole direct creation of God. The only begotten Son is the one through whom God created all other things.–Colossians 1:16.”
Colossians 1:16 is a very strange verse to quote here, as this Watchtower is for use in evangelizing, not simply for study inside the Jehovah’s Witness organization. As such, anyone not reading a Jehovah’s Witness Bible (the New World Translation), would not read this verse as a proof AGAINST the deity of Christ, but for it:
“For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17, NASB).
The New World Translation drastically changes this verse by adding one word not in the original text– “other.” In Jehovah’s Witness theology, Jesus does not create ALL things, but all OTHER things, meaning that God created Jesus, but Jesus created everything else. However, Paul does not support such a view. He states clearly that Jesus is the cause of everything that has been created. Since Jesus cannot create Himself, He must not have been created.
The term used in this Watchtower for Jesus, “only begotten,” is not in Colossians 1:16, but it does appear in other passages, at least in some translations– “monogenes” is also often translated as “unique” or “only” and most scholars lean toward this translation. If one takes the view that it should be translated as “only,” then passages like John 1:18 would read, “No one has ever seen God; the only God [later manuscripts read “Son” instead of “God” here], who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (ESV). If you take the view that “only begotten” is the proper translation, then John 1:18 would read “only begotten God.” If Jesus is begotten, does this mean that He was created? Not according to the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.), which uses this word of Jesus while still claiming that He was never created. They understood “begotten” to refer to a relationship in eternity wherein the Father is the ground of the Son, (which distinguishes the two) but not the Creator of the Son (the theological term for this is “eternal generation.” Click here for more information: http://www.wesleyantheology.com/structure-in-the-trinity.html). The term “begotten” also implies that the Son has the same nature as the Father. A man does not beget a burrito, though he might “make” one. We are adopted as God’s sons, but Jesus is “the only begotten Son.” Thus, this term does not work in the Jehovah’s Witnesses favor, since they believe that Jesus is not of the divine nature. If we do accept “only begotten” as the proper translation, this still does not undermine what the New Testament clearly says about Jesus’ divine nature.
At first glance, it’s hard to see why this passage would be used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to disprove the deity of Jesus. It reads:
“[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (ESV).
A straightforward reading would be that Jesus has the same nature of God, though He did not find it necessary to hold onto this with all of His might, but instead humbled Himself by taking on humanity and dying for our sins. Of course, in the translation Jehovah’s Witnesses use, their New World Translation, the first verse in this passage reads:
“who, although he was existing in God’s form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God.”
They therefore acknowledge that Jesus is said to exist in God’s form, though this is usually understood to mean that that Jesus existed as a spirit, like God does. But if Paul is simply saying that Jesus, like God, didn’t have a body, how is this significant to what follows? The logical flow is, “Jesus was God, however, Jesus didn’t feel the need to hold on to all of His divine rights but humbled Himself.” This is why New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado translates verse 6 as, “who, being in the form of God, did not regard this being equal to God as something to be exploited” (p. 89, Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?).
Richard Bauckham gives a similar line of reasoning, as well as a similar translation:
“The best linguistic argument suggests that the debated clause within which this phrase occurs is best understood: ‘he did not think equality with God something to be used for his own advantage’.” (p. 207, Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel).
Of translations that disagree with theirs, the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim, “It is apparent that [other translators] are bending the rules to support Trinitarian ends. Far from saying that Jesus thought it was appropriate to be equal to God, the Greek of Philippians 2:6, when read objectively, shows just the opposite, that Jesus did not think it was appropriate” (p. 25, Should You Believe in the Trinity?). The basis for this argument is that the word they translate as “a seizure,” (harpagmos) suggests seizing or snatching violently. Thus, they understand Paul to be arguing that Jesus didn’t try to steal what wasn’t His– namely, the title of God.
But this ignores the immediate context. If I said, “although these cookies are mine, I did not consider them something to be held onto tightly at all costs, but shared them,” this would suggest that I thought of myself as having the right to keep the cookies for myself. In fact I do. They are my cookies. “The owner of these cookies” is part of my identity. Thus, I don’t have to share them. I could declare that you’ll have my cookies when you pry them from my cold, dead hands! This is, in a sense, what Paul is saying about Jesus. Jesus could have held onto His divine rights with a death grip, but He let them loose as an act of love or humility. If Jesus was not God, it wouldn’t be humility for Him to not act like He was God. It would simply be honest. But because Jesus is in the form of God– He has God’s nature– He is equal to God, and giving up those divine rights is an act of extremest humility.
The larger context bears this out. Verse 9 tells us that because Jesus humbled Himself, God the Father raised Him back up:
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11, ESV).
Paul is referencing Isaiah 45 here. In Isaiah 45:18 God declares, “I am the LORD, and there is no other” (ESV). In verse 23, God says, “By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance’” (ESV). If God has declared that to Him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He alone is Lord, and the Scripture cannot be broken, then Paul is giving us the fulfillment of this prophecy when he tells us that every tongue shall confess that Christ is Lord. It is not an accident that the New World Translation breaks their rule of changing out “lord’ (Gr. kurios) for “Jehovah” when they get to this passage. Paul here clearly quotes a prophecy about God Almighty and applies it to Jesus, and it would be very inconvenient for Jehovah’s Witness theology for them to point that out.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to shut down or end the conversation if challenged too strongly. This is ironic considering they are known for going house-to-house just to challenge other people’s views! If something you share is going to stick, it is best to share inconsistencies in their own Bible or in arguments the Society makes.
So, for instance, one could point out that the NWT inconsistently translates “Lord” in Philippians 2:9-11; or that their own Kingdom Interlinear (which they are encouraged to use as part of the “JW Library” app) gives a more literal translation of the last clause of John 1:1 as “god [not ‘a god’] was the Word.” The effect of this tactic is that you have now made an association in their minds that supports the deity of Christ that they will see whenever they open their Bibles.
Also, remember that these are people who are entrenched in a group that asserts a significant amount of control over their lives and thoughts. To change their minds is not an easy matter. It could have significant costs associated. Try to be patient but also prepared to explain the truth to them as clearly as possible.